Thursday, 1 November 2012

Science fiction and war: grit or glory?

What do Star Wars and Band of Brothers have in common? Well, precious little. Star Wars, much as I love it, is a largely glossy rendering of War, with space battles and battle scenes viewed from a panoramic distance. Band of Brothers offers grim reality in close-up, people being wounded, in pain, being killed… It’s far more gritty, far more personal. There are rare moments in Star Wars when it gets more personal, but they are few and far between. It is entertainment, whereas Band of Brothers is more like a shocking history reminding us all of why war should be avoided at almost all costs.

It can be tempting for science fiction to maintain this emotional distance, especially in ‘space opera’, where millions or billons of soldiers, human or alien, can be killed in dazzling space fire-fights with advanced weaponry. Should science fiction avoid the horrors of war? Hell, no, at least not in my books.

Here is Blake, one of the characters, reflecting on war just before a battle, in my third book Eden’s Revenge.

As he listened to Marcus’ strategy, Blake smiled. It was brilliant, and yet underlying it was a very old tactic, one he’d heard from Bill Kilaney forty years ago during close combat training. Bill had simply said, “If you don’t want to miss, make sure you’re touching your opponent.” He’d called it the bayonet strategy, after the horrors of the First World War trenches, when young men had to learn to kill others directly, pushing cold steel into their enemies’ bellies and hearts, prising the life out of them. Fear made most men do it, because if they didn’t, they’d be on the receiving end instead. Being in ships, fighting with energy beams and missiles made it feel more distant, less personal, but in the end it wasn’t. You locked onto your enemy, you touched him, and then you killed him, you tore his life from him. That was war. It was what you did to protect those you loved. His deceased wife Glenda was far from his mind when he was in this mode, and he knew she’d always found it difficult to accept, it being the one sore point during their long marriage that they’d argued over countless times. But then, he figured, in about five minutes he’d have plenty of time to explain.

It can also be tempting in science fiction to have people be wounded and carry on with a stiff upper lip, and heal quickly and perfectly. Real life, even in science fiction, is unlikely to be so easy. Here’s a further scene from Eden’s Revenge, where another character, Micah, has been wounded, and is in shock (the character Chahat-Me in this extract is an alien doctor):

It was the acrid smell of burnt equipment and flesh that woke Micah. He gazed forward blearily through the jagged, charcoaled hole into open space, wide enough to suck out a hovercar, framing a black-suited Petra who manned the console. She worked feverishly within arm’s reach of yawning vacuum, protected by a pink-tinged emergency force field. It shimmered every few seconds, indicating the precariousness of its power supply.
Everything sounded to Micah as if his head was underwater, a bubbling diffuse noise that only served to make what he saw more surreal. Sparks rained down from shattered, fused equipment. Frayed pipes and cords hung and swayed as the ship was rocked by small explosions and decompressions, occasionally touching the force field keeping them all alive, sending electric blue arcs skittering across the gossamer energy skein. Death was knocking, trying to open that door to cold relentless oblivion. One more hit…
He tried to get up, to move, but nothing happened, the only sensation something trickling from the left side of his mouth, down his chin. Besides, he couldn't feel his legs. Gabriel came into view next to Petra, agitated, shouting, waving his arms. Micah swallowed with effort, thought about speaking, gave it up, then looked down. A rod-like chunk of blue ceramic material protruded from his navel. He gripped its smooth surface slick with his own blood, and dared to pull. It was stuck fast.
            Gabriel came closer, singed hair and blackened tattoo, frowning. He said something but Micah couldn’t untangle the words. A black-haired snout appeared, quicksilver eyes shifting rapidly. Micah placed a listless hand on Chahat-Me’s shoulder and nodded, held his breath. One of her paws morphed into a syringe and pierced his sternum. Gabriel’s palm braced Micah’s left shoulder as he wrenched the ceramic rod from Micah’s body. Micah’s jaw clamped down on the scream exploding inside him, and he rolled his eyes back into his head, arms shaking, then he dared to look down again. Blood gushed out, but Chahat-Me stemmed it with a paw morphed into a flat disk, generating a rising heat that grew and grew, accompanied by steam tainted with the smell of cauterised flesh. Chahat-Me put something in Micah’s mouth and he bit down hard, his voice finding itself in gasping, spasmodic growls, fists squeezing rhythmically in time with tremors of pain in his abdomen. He glimpsed Petra turn towards him, horror plastered across her face. Gabriel yelled something at her and she turned back to her station. 
            Micah tried to move but Chahat-Me’s paw rested firmly on him. From his sternum, where her syringe still penetrated him, a trickle of cool rain fountained through his body, and he slumped back with relief when it reached his head. Gabriel tossed the blue bar aside, said something to Chahat-Me, then moved out of view.
            One of her paws extended something into his right ear. It felt and sounded odd, as if someone was rummaging about inside his head, nudging bones out of the way. She tugged at something, there was a snap, and suddenly sound flooded in: hisses, alarms, clanks, thuds, and a gushing noise he knew to be the Pyramid’s circulatory self-healing system channelling semi-intelligent liquid polymers to bolster and repair damaged areas and equipment. It sounded like it was in full flood. Beneath it he heard not-so-distant cries of agony, some human. Ossyrians called to each other in their high-pitched wails.
“Are we behind the moon?” he said. Chahat-Me nodded. Thank God.
           “Make me mobile,” he said. Her eyes quivered, and Micah guessed she had other plans, to put him into stasis, to kill the pain. “I prefer to die awake, fighting.”

Many science fiction books have war as a foreground or background, but often it is distant, and can almost be seen as glorious. But every now and again we need to be reminded, if only for a moment, of the inevitable personal costs of war, of those maimed and killed, and of the after-effects on those who survive. Life is not a video game. In reality, when it’s ‘game over’, it really is over.

Eden's Revenge comes out January 2013. The Eden Paradox and Eden's Trial are available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

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